Whatcom County train derailment was ‘no accident’: retired NTSB investigator

SEATTLE — This oil train derailment near Custer last December was “no accident,” according to an expert on rail safety.

The National Transportation Safety Board was leading the investigation into the oil train derailment near Custer last December.

But early this year, the NTSB turned its findings over to the FBI. An expert said that indicates investigators believe this is a crime.

In fact, he believes someone sabotaged that oil train, causing it to derail some 90 miles north of Seattle. The train was traveling on railroad tracks just like these and was on its way to a refinery in Ferndale.

It has been a growing concern in the Pacific Northwest that someone will sabotage a train, especially one carrying oil.

Now a retired investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board believes that is what happened in Whatcom County three days before Christmas. A train carrying thousands of gallons of crude oil derailed then caught fire just a few miles from its final destination.

“No, this was no accident,” said Russel Quimby. “This had to (have) been a series of malicious acts.

Quimby first appeared on KUOW which broke the story after weeks of reporting.

Quimby said when the NTSB turned the case over to the FBI, it indicated investigators believe this is a crime. He said what was done was almost certainly deliberate.

“Two key things,” said Quimby. “They had to disable the air brake system on the train. And then they also had to enable the train to come apart, to uncouple.”

Investigators said, in 2020, there were 41 incidents of shunts placed on BNSF railroad tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties. Those were believed to be efforts to thwart the construction of an oil pipeline in British Columbia. In fact, two women were arrested last November and accused of placing shunts on a track just outside Bellingham.

No one was injured in the Custer derailment. But it was certainly a rude awakening for those living near the tracks.

“My granddaughter lives down there,” said Tonia McDonald a few hours after the derailment, her voice breaking. “And she got out. She’s OK. It’s really scary.”

Quimby believes the train’s three-man crew should have discovered the breach during a routine check. Still, he said they were fortunate the train derailed before it reached the Phillips 66 refinery in Ferndale.

“If that had happened closer to the plant or inside the plant,” he said, “it might have been much worse.”

Burlington Northern also blamed the crew for not spotting the breach.

But the union said crew members did their inspection before the breach happened. Indeed, they said the engineer and the conductor “are heroes” and risked their own lives to decouple the cars, preventing even more damage.